As with most readings of gender, it is important to look at it with an intersectional lens- one that acknowledges how different identities interact to form statures of privilege. I believe that developing a deeper understanding of the way in which Walter describes women in this novel can shed light upon Collins’ social commentary on gender, class, and race. When Walter first meets Marian, he says, “She left the window- and I said to myself, The lady is dark. She moved forward a few steps- and I said to myself, The lady is young. She approached nearer-and I said to myself, The lady is ugly!” (p.34). Looking at the syntax of these few sentences shows several interruptions from commas and hyphens, making every phrase short and abrupt. These short, abrupt sentences give the reader an unflattering feeling as they meet Marian with Walter, one that is unsettling. Just as he is initially confused and skeptical, as is the reader who feels Walter’s hesitation through the syntax. Walter continues to describe Marian as having a complexion that was, “almost swarthy,” and ,”the dark brown on her upper lip was almost a mustache, She had a large, firm, masculine mouth and jaw; prominent, piercing, resolute brown eyes; and thick, coal-black hair, growing unusually low down on her forehead. Her expression….appeared, while she was silent, to be altogether wanting in those feminine attractions of gentleness and pliability, without which the beauty of the handsomest woman alive is incomplete,” (p.35). The last sentence of this quote is worth noting as it explicitly states what a woman needs to be considered beautiful; gentleness and pliability. There is an emphasis in this description on both gender and race as Marian is described as having very masculine, strong, dark features. This contrasts the very feminine women Walter meets throughout the novel, especially Walter’s love interest, Laura, who is described as, “fair and pretty,” (p.37). Later, Walter describes her with similar language, saying that she is a, “light, youthful figure…with a little straw hat of the natural colour, plainly and sparingly tripped with ribbon to match the gown, covers her head, and throws its soft pearly shadow over the upper part of her face. Her hair is so faint and a pale brown,” (p.51). It was fascinating for me to read this description of Laura, as Walter is so clearly infatuated with her, but the feature that makes him so attracted to her is her inherent whiteness. This, along with her stereotypical femininity that portrays her as weak, are almost exclusively what Walter is attracted to. The description of Laura and Marian contrast drastically because of two dichotomies: masculine vs. feminine and dark vs. light. The diction Collins uses here seems very deliberate to me, in that the author seems to be explicitly showing Walter’s inherent biases. The words “light,” “fair,” “pale,” “faint,” as I see it, are Collins’ way of portraying the standard of beauty for women in the Victorian Period. I believe that I need to read more of the book to better understand Collins’ social commentary, but for now, it is clear to me that Collins is setting up a reality of modern society in which beauty is equated with whiteness and weakness. This standard excludes women like Marian, who are intelligent, kind, and interesting. Making Marian such a likable character yet “unattractive” pushes me to believe that Collins is in fact critiquing a world in which a woman’s value is based upon her beauty. However, it troubles me that there are no women in the novel that are both attractive and intelligent.
At the end of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Alice’s older sister imagines “how this same little sister of hers would, in the after-time, be herself a grown woman […] and how she would gather about her other little children, and make their eyes bright and eager with many a strange tale, perhaps even with the dream of Wonderland of long ago; and how she would feel with all their simple sorrows, and find a pleasure in all their simple joys” (Carroll 99, Norton 1992 Ed. Gray). Alice’s sister immediately thrusts her forward from childhood into womanhood, from an imaginative, experiential role to an informative, supporting one. Although initially problematic because it seems to sketch Alice’s future solely within the confines of motherhood, this image of Alice as a maternal figure subtly legitimizes her role as a female storyteller.
Alice’s experience in Wonderland is validated by its transmission to the next generation, whose gaze lies “bright and eager” on her tale. Through the socially accepted role of “mother,” Alice is able to use her imagination (which, despite her dream state, I would deem her female experience) to form new physical and emotional bonds within her society—to “gather about her” a group of children, and to “feel” their sorrows and joys, perhaps even giving them advice. Her role as mother empowers her to retain her dream-world in a way that other adults cannot, and to spread the lessons that she learned and the experiences that she had there to the next generation.
In “Goblin Market,” Christina Rossetti similarly paints the two sisters transitioning from an experiential otherworldly danger to the safe, idealized realm of domesticity. Although their story is more explicitly didactic than Alice’s tale, it still retains the thrilling, imaginatively provocative elements of “the haunted glen,” “the wicked […] men,” “poison in the blood,” “deadly peril,” and “the fiery antidote” (Rossetti 488). That they have access to the experience with which to tell such a tale positions Lizzie and Laura as authoritative storytellers. Furthermore, the moral of their tale, like the end of Alice’s sister’s imaginings, includes connective imagery—with their story, they “[join] hands to little hands […and] bid them cling together,” thus aligning the emotional bond and mutual reliance of sisterhood with the physical bond of clasped hands (Rossetti 488). Like Alice, the sisters bring about structural social change in the next generation by telling their story. This depiction empowers them in their role as female storytellers, underlining their experiential authority—but it does so by first legitimizing them as mothers.